A contemplative space dedicated to the “Father of Thai Modern Art”
Squeezed between Silpakorn University and the Thawornwatthu Building, along Sanam Luang, stands the almost unnoticed Thailand Department of Fine Arts—located in a historical building bearing Italian architectural flourishes, and friezes designed in Italian Art Nouveau-style dating from the late 1920s.
The current Fine Arts Department used to be part of the Silpakorn University of Arts, and the institution was the brainchild of Italian-born Corrado Feroci, a historic personality considered to be the “Father of Thai Modern Art”. Born in Florence, Italy, in 1892, the young artist attended the Florentine Royal Academy of Art and earned the title of Professor of Fine Arts following his first exhibition of sculpture.
Feroci moved to Siam in 1923, to teach western sculpture to Thai students, and rapidly became the official sculptor of King Rama VI. His statue of King Rama I, located at the entrance to Phra Phutta Yodfa Bridge (aka: Memorial Bridge), gave him fame and recognition within the Kingdom. He was honoured in 1932 by the Order of the White Elephant, and a year later established Thailand’s first school of fine arts.
During World War II, Feroci changed his name, gaining Thai nationality and becoming, officially, Silpa Bhirasri. His school of fine arts became, in 1943, the Silpakorn University of Arts, with Bhirasri installed as the Dean. The university quickly became Thailand’s leading institution for art.
The influence of Bhirasri is evident in the work of modern Thai artists of that era, as he taught contemporary Western-style in both sculpture and figurative painting. However, he barely followed the evolution of art that was happening around the world after World War II, and thus imposed a rather conservative vision on Thailand’s arts scene.
The Silpa Bhirasri Memorial National Museum is located on the grounds of the Fine Arts Department property, and it is the building where Bhirasri used to have his workshop. It has, for the most part, been preserved just as it used to be when Silpa Bhirasri taught at the university. Two large windows let light stream into the room, which is filled with various memorabilia. His desk is taken up with an old typewriter, a phone, and a vintage phonograph, as well as some of his letters, documents, sketches of monuments, and casts and small versions of various statues. Another charming detail is Bhirasri’s own palette of paints and brushes, kept within a display case.
The studio has been kept in roughly the same condition that it was back in 1962, the year the artist passed away. As a museum it is somewhat small, but it houses a large collection of memorabilia which, in turn, tells a lot about Silpa Bhirasri’s vision of Thai arts. In the main room, there are various sculptures and paintings that he selected during his years as the Dean. The museum is open Monday to Friday, from 9am to 4pm, and is free of charge.
After checking out the memorial museum, take some time to visit the Hall of Sculpture at Silpakorn University. Opened in 1999, the hall was the original place for models to be sculpted, and contains many of the historical plaster casts made by Bhirasri for the statues he designed. In addition, there are his models of some of Bangkok’s most famous civic landmarks, such as Democracy Monument and Victory Monument.
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot